Back in the early to mid 1970s, a crop of young directors appeared in a government program intended to revitalize Australia’s film industry that had languished since World War II. They were dubbed the Australian New Wave. The program worked, because it found a series of directors highlighted by George Miller, Nicholas Roeg and Peter Weir–directors who found both commercial and critical acclaim. Weir produced a stream of films that received little notice beyond the most highbrow Australian film critics, then broke out with The Cars that Ate Paris (Peter Weir, Australia 1975) (Note: This film has since been retitled The Cars that Eat People, but The Cars that Ate Paris is its original title.), a horror film about a small town that crashes visitors’ cars in order to sell the parts. Weir skyrocketed from that point on and by the dawn of the next decade, he was a critical darling who was about to cross over to the United States and release a string of fantastic, successful films. But probably the most popular film anyone in the Australian New Wave was Miller’s first feature, Mad Max (Australia 1979). Miller took some of the same images and ideas from Weir’s first success and took them to their logical extreme, producing a film about a sort of steampunk desert dystopia where water and gasoline are the world’s most precious resources. His film was a naked revenge fantasy intended to allow him to show off the world he had come up with, a world that shared more than a little with the town of Paris in Weir’s earlier film.
36 years later, Weir is cemented as one of the best directors in modern cinema history, so successful that he can make whatever film he wants and no one really cares whether it has any likelihood of commercial success. Miller, meanwhile, has made a relatively small number of films and some have not been well-received by critics, but every single one has been an incredible commercial success. And so, he’s still continuing his Mad Max saga. After the first film, he made a sequel that was just as much a remake as a true continuation in Mad Max 2 (Australia 1982) (Note: This film was released as The Road Warrior in the US, because Mad Max had not received much, if any, release in the US, but Mad Max 2 is actually the original title.), reveling in the ability to show off the world he had created with a large enough budget not to constrain his imagination. Then he made part of another film before turning it over to another director who turned it into something closer to an addition to John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (UK/USA 1981) before allowing the series to rest for nearly three decades. Still, he has maintained control of this series for so long that it’s impressive, regardless of the quality of the films.
Part of the reason Miller has been so commercially successful is that he has made a number of films that are not so much narrative cinema as excuse films. Many popular types of film are films of that type. Pornography is the most obvious example–the film has story, narrative, cinematography, etc. but those are only there as an excuse to show naked people. Similarly, many of the films one can find in the “action” category (Which is not a genre.) are excuses to show a bunch of action sequences, explosions, and stunts and many in the “science fiction” category are just excuses to show off special effects. Films like anything starring Liam Neeson in the last decade have stories, lighting, dialogue, etc. but exist to show off the stunt- and explosion-filled setpieces. Star Wars (George Lucas, USA 1977) has all those same elements but also exists as an excuse to show off that LucasFilm had the world’s finest special effects shop at the time.
The Mad Max series has always teetered on the edge of being more an excuse film than anything narrative, but Mad Max: Fury Road goes whole hog into excuse territory. The film’s entire plot is: Charlize Theron steals the King’s wives to take them to a magical Land of Green, so he follows her to get them back. That’s it. The movie exists to show a bunch of cartoonishly over the top CGI, pyrotechnics, and stuntwork.
Cinematographer John Seale and Miller produce a film whose look is almost animated because it is so filled with CGI, fire, explosions, etc. The film’s bizarre unreality is so thorough that it reaches Riley Keough’s comic book bright red hair and Melissa Jaffer’s oversized lips and frankly nothing in the entire film feels real. This look lets it get away with its extreme violence, because it helps keep the characters at such a distance, but the problem is that does not appear to be what Miller is going for. He seems to want us to have feelings at least for Furiosa and Max, but the film doesn’t give us the opportunity to do so. And what’s a real shame is that he has a great (and somehow underappreciated in spite of an Oscar) actor playing Furiosa who is undoubtedly capable of pulling at the heartstrings but is so busy covering her up with warpaint, CGI, and explosions, that we never get the opportunity to develop feelings for her. Even when she has a breakdown in the desert, she’s shot from the side at a long distance, enveloped by the fake sand effects that overwhelm her emotional reaction that by all rights should be the center of the scene. It’s a very cold film, because it just wants us to look at the spectacle and nothing else.
As a film that’s all about spectacle and often literally covers its actors faces, there is no surprise that the acting is decent but unnoticeable. Charlize Theron is a great actor, but she has nothing to do. Tom Hardy is left with one note to act and spends half the film with a face mask on that does nothing so much as it reminds us of Bane. They do a good enough job, but Miller gave them nothing at all to do.
The score is easily the star of the film. Junkie XL provides an appropriately loud score, filled with heavily distorted, simple guitar licks on top of booming, cavernous drums that not only match what Miller shows us on screen but are evocative of the level of spectacle and noise that the film throws at us. Miller and Junkie XL could clearly create a fantastic music video together, and one could easily argue that they just made one.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a total mess, artistically. It’s a film that exists only as an excuse for huge, spectacular stunts and pyrotechnics with extremely little reality in its visuals. If you just want a loud, obnoxious stunt-and-fire spectacle, I cannot imagine this film does not deliver. If you want anything more, it’s not going to.
- If you didn’t figure it out, I’m a huge Peter Weir fan. Peter Weir is really my favorite director working today. I don’t think my description of the Australian New Wave is slanted because of that, but it’s only fair to point it out.
- I have to admit, it did feel weird having a new Max. Obviously, Mel Gibson is way too old now even if we ignore his controversy, so it’s fine that Miller recast the part, but it did feel strange.
- I should note that the film’s use of CGI was actually really strange–it was used largely for the background and Charlize Theron’s missing arm. The cars, explosions, stunts, etc. are actually real, but they are on such fake backgrounds that they still don’t feel real. I suspect that Miller would say there was little CGI in use, but where it was used was such an issue that I still cannot pretend it wasn’t part of the film’s problem.
- I did like that one of the first things we could see was that they tattooed Max with a bunch of information and the most obvious bit was “Universal Donor”–an encapsulation of his role within the film and a hint about the way he finally saves Furiosa in the end.
- We really didn’t need Max’s narration. It included some beautiful dialogue, but it was so unnecessary that it served as nothing more than a distraction.
- 3D is still useless. At least this film didn’t have quite so many of the “Oh it’s coming at you BECAUSE IT’S 3D!” moments in it (Really it only had one.), but it still added zero to the film. It’s still an extra $3-5 that you don’t need to spend. And I keep saying this, but I think it’s true: If it’s 3D and you’re showing shots from up high that don’t scare me, the 3D isn’t yet to the point where you should pretend it’s realistic. I’m so scared of heights that I worry when I’m six inches off the ground–if you’re showing me shots from 200 feet up and I don’t get scared, my brain is not seeing that depth, and that’s part of why 3D doesn’t work.